Labour intensive with slow response times, limited data and obsolete technology: that was the reality for Ontario’s Student Assistance Program (OSAP) five years ago. Now the picture is very different. OSAP is a fully automated, fast and paperless set of services that accumulates reliable, authoritative data and allows for evidence-based decision making.
In 2009, Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities undertook modernization of the services that provide funding to postsecondary students. A ministry team of policy, program design and delivery staff partnered with information and information technology (I&IT) members to fundamentally transform OSAP.
OSAP remains a complex system. It boasts 28 different loans, bursaries and grants worth $2.4 billion annually, and 70 different partners serving 600,000 students. Many attempts to modernize similar complex sets of services have encountered large hurdles that either reduce the scope from a fundamental transformation to local improvements, or lead to giving up on the entire initiative.
Yet the OSAP modernization successfully overhauled the program to a 21st century style of service delivery, on time and on budget.
Here are the five key practices that led to success – both in their execution and the result.
Ready for change
What jump-started the project this time? A strong leadership team of executives and willing operational managers who were ready for the rough road of significant change and motivated by the possibilities of a modern business model. The leadership was prepared to take risks, and put on-the-ground staff with the right combination of knowledge and technical expertise on the team to make it happen.
The resourcing model
I&IT in the Ontario public service uses a blended resourcing model where leaders and teams are fully in control of the direction of the initiative, including its direction, oversight, solution, quality control, requirement traceability and system integration. The resourcing model is augmented with expertise where it is needed from the vendor community. This model helped the OSAP team control spending within the initial approval, with no changes. The model does allow for changing business priorities. The project encountered two: launching the government’s first mobile app in 2009 and rolling out a new “30 percent off tuition” program in 2011.
Integrating the business and I&IT teams
Traditionally, program members are the subject matter experts and define the business model while I&IT builds the solution. On the OSAP project, common goals and clear performance metrics created a strong sense of trust on the team. I&IT offered ideas for process improvement or simplified workflows. Program experts demanded user experiences that met commercial standards. This openness to each other’s ideas and solutions and the sharing of risks and outcomes, regardless of the source, will be the norm in the new digital world.
Like it or not, you need discipline. Modernizing a complex business model, over a five-year period, with changing priorities is extremely difficult. Yet OSAP did it, on time and on budget. How?
• Project management, project management, project management. The team kept close tabs on daily activities, fluctuating workloads, multiple tasks and tight timelines.
• Keeping executives informed and engaged with frequent status updates, for both guidance and troubleshooting.
• Keeping on track: the course was corrected before things veered off the project path.
• Consulting and trusting each other’s judgment when priorities changed.
The solution was innovative
In the end, the OSAP modernization wasn’t about just one great change or solution. The technical platform has five components:
• 7,000 business rules stored in one external engine, in plain English instead of software code.
• Web content management and imaging for the equivalent of 40 million pages of documents.
• A workflow engine to reuse common services across the 28 different loans, bursaries and grants.
• Secure single sign-on for 2,000 financial aid administrators at colleges and universities.
• A reporting and business intelligence tool for decision-making at the government end.
As well, using an agile lifecycle methodology meant the team took an iterative approach to design, development and testing. Mistakes were caught early when they were easy to fix, in contrast to the old waterfall approach, where mistakes could result in significant revisions and associated cost overruns. Finally, project improvements were released in phases: the student facing application in 2010; the financial aid administrator portal in 2011; the mobile application, 30 percent off tuition and OSAP Express in 2012; the back-end processes in 2013.
Administrators and students in Ontario now have a full set of automated, modern services to support and deliver student aid. Facilitated continuous improvement and the ongoing business value of this project will continue to earn it high marks.